It seems like almost every week we hear new calls for higher education to improve its performance in the area of undergraduate education.
Commentators note that rising tuition is causing large amounts of student debt, yet many students take on this debt without ever receiving a degree. Thus, the calls to higher education are not just to find less expensive ways to deliver a degree but also to find ways to increase graduation rates.
Within this context, The University of Texas at Austin recently set an ambitious new goal to increase its four-year graduation rate from about 50% to 70% within five years. A secondary goal was to similarly raise the overall graduation rate.
Accomplishing these goals would both increase the number of students who receive degrees, but it would also bring down the overall cost of an undergraduate education at the University.
In pursuit of the goal, UT-Austin’s President, Bill Powers, created a task force to study the issues and make recommendations about how best to achieve a higher graduation rate. This task force undertook extensive research on the issue and eventually published a lengthy report detailing its findings and recommendations.
As shown in the report, UT-Austin’s six-year graduation rate was at one time much lower than the current 80%. Indeed, for much of the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, the six-year rate for the university hovered between 60 and 70%. The four-year rate during this period was much lower at about 30%. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1990’s that both rates began to climb to the higher levels we see today.
Back in the 1980’s and 90’s, the campus was also not a very diverse place. In 1980, ethnic minority students comprised less than 20% of the student body, a number that rose to about 30% by 1990.
In contrast, by 2013 over 50% the student body was from an ethnic minority group, a large increase that coincided with the large increase in graduation rates. This experience showed that UT-Austin did not have to sacrifice either the quality of its students or their educational experience to grow a student body that is more diverse and reflective of the people of Texas.
One possible explanation for the increase in the graduation rates over the past twenty years was the steadily increasing academic strength of the freshman class. This explanation, on its face, makes sense given that higher SAT scores do positively predict the likelihood of completing a degree.
However, as shown in the report, SAT scores among UT-Austin freshmen started rising in the early 1980’s, but four-year graduation rates remained level. It was not until about 1992 or 1993 when UT-Austin started seeing an upward trend in four-year graduation rates that corresponded with higher average SAT scores.
Perhaps more importantly, after that point in time, the four-year rate began to mirror increases and decreases in the average SAT score of entering students. Clearly then, something happened during that moment in time to transform the university and lead to higher overall four-year graduation rates.
So what happened in the early 1990’s that could have caused such a fundamental shift in student performance? The likely answer seems to be fairly simple: the University began hiring professional undergraduate advisors in large numbers. These advisors were able to help students navigate degree plans, find courses they need to graduate, and in general, provide support for students in need.
These advisors also had the benefit of better communication technology. The early 1990’s also saw the birth of the internet as a tool for universities to use to communicate with their students. It is likely that these technological resources, and easier ability to communicate, also allowed the rising SAT scores to translate into higher four-year graduation rates.
We will, of course, never know how much of the rise in graduation rates tied to higher SAT scores can be attributed to advising, technology, or other factors (e.g., tuition also started climbing during this period). Yet, these trends nevertheless reveal several important lessons about student success and degree completion.
First, professionally trained advisors are important for student success. The increasing complexity of degree plans and strains on course availability mean that advisors are needed more than ever to help students navigate complicated terrain, sometimes with courses taken across multiple colleges and universities.
Advisors are also essential for helping students find and understand the value of academic enrichment programs, such as study abroad, internships, student organizations, and undergraduate research. The classroom can only do so much to teach students; the remainder of the learning that is the hallmark of a residential university is the purview of those other activities that often provide rich, and sometimes life-changing, experiences. Professional advisors are in the best positions to help make those connections.
Second, mentorship, either through professional staff or student peers, can heavily contribute to student success. Drawing on this notion, the College of Liberal Arts at UT-Austin recently created an undergraduate student success program dubbed UTurn. Relying heavily on staff and student mentorship, the goal of the UTurn program is to help students who are struggling academically to avoid academic dismissal and actually become successful in their studies. To date, the program has been extremely successful with many students reporting that their academic lives were changed as a result of participating in the program. The College hopes to expand the program to even more students and to enhance its student mentorship efforts in other areas.
Third, technology is an incredibly important resource for spurring academic success. One of the foundational aspects of a residential university like UT-Austin is its ability to create a physical community on campus. But it also must create the spirit of a community, and this spirit can be easily communicated and reinforced using technology. For example, this past summer the university created a series of videos for students to watch before they attended new student orientation. These videos touched on a number of topics related to success at the university, but they also reinforced what it meant to be a member of the university community.
So, too, can instructors improve learning in their classrooms through the effective use of technology. At this point, we must take for granted that our students rely on technology in their day-to-day lives and are very comfortable in its use. Employing it in classroom settings plays into this comfort level, and when used effectively, can enhance student learning.
Our students will also graduate and enter a world that expects them to be facile in the use of social media, productivity software, and other forms of technology. By building courses that incorporate technology we both give our students more ability to succeed in our classrooms but also prepare them for the world that awaits them.
These efforts can all be successful in increasing graduation rates, but they come with a cost: building advising staff and deploying technology are expensive endeavors. And this brings us back to the calls by commentators to reduce the cost of higher education.
How do we balance the increased costs of meeting our goals for our students and yet keep tuition low? There are multiple possibilities, but whatever the answer, the future of higher education likely depends on it.
Marc A. Musick is Associate Dean for Student Affairs, College of Liberal Arts and Professor, Department of Sociology, at the University of Texas at Austin.